The four newly framed values of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) are excellence, equity, efficiency, and emotion---with the greatest of these being emotion.
John Chubb, President
National Association of Independent Schools
At AIS, these values clearly are aligned with all that we do --- especially, from my perspective, in the area of emotion. Though we attend to academic, athletic, and artistic excellence in a vigorous way, while developing a community in which equity is a measure of our success and ensuring that efficiency undergirds all that we do, the climate in which we accomplish these inspired goals is centered by the belief that kindness, respect, and caring beyond self are integrally connected to our work in the other three areas.
This week Michael Blanche, a clinical social worker, who has worked with our students and parents for a number of years on drug and alcohol education, led a conversation with students and parents on Tuesday night that I thought was really powerful, so I wanted to share some of that discussion with you. His work at our school is certainly one part of that emotional underpinning that supports your daughters in their overall educational process.
Initially, Michael engaged all in a brief conversation about why we had decided to attend the session and what we hoped to take away from the evening. Collectively, we were interested in being educated about the issues, especially in relation to what trends Michael is seeing in students’ drug and alcohol use as well as in the current pressures on our students that seem to catalyze that use.
The Era of Stress, as Michael labels this decade, is created by many factors, but one of the most influential is cyberspace, a place where, I think, anonymity and intimacy are jarringly connected. Michael contends that social media provide places where teenagers feel pressure to develop the “perfect cool profile” of themselves --- a virtual way to fit in --- by posting a picture of themselves on Facebook or by tweeting one, which, in order to achieve the right coolness quotient, must include signs of drug and/or alcohol use, casual sex, and provocative clothing. Students today feel the need to create an image of themselves that fits with what they think the culture is or is telling them to be, and, at times, they exaggerate what they really are doing to feel a part of those images of coolness that are ubiquitous in contemporary culture.
So, during the adolescent years, a time of great vulnerability, a time when your daughters are beginning to define their identities, deciding who they will become, and thinking about how they will connect, social media sites create a feeling that they are being left out, if they don’t enter this conversation, which often is based on illusion. By the way, parents and students at this meeting agreed that those posted or tweeted photos rarely include pictures of students staying home and being with family or going to a movie: rather they almost exclusively show risky behavior. As an aside, a student wondered, in the midst of this part of the conversation, how one figures out, in a safe environment, what one’s tolerance for alcohol is before going to college.
Our students felt that parents need to be more aware of what students are exposed to, given some of the following, concerning trends:
The pressure to participate in raves and the expected behavior at them are appalling. Students urged parents to consider following a rave or two on Twitter to have a sense of these events and the ways in which they contribute to those cool contemporary images.
Some positive social norming is happening because drinking and driving are seen as taboo; however, marijuana use and driving are not viewed with the same sense of danger.
Posted photos increasingly are altered to change the image that the person wanted to project into something quite different --- and these changes are often hurtful and damaging. Consequently, students, who choose to use social media to post innocuous photos, are subject to gross misrepresentations, which permanently linger in cyberspace.
The decriminalization of marijuana has made students feel that it is not a drug and not dangerous, --- minimizing its detrimental effects.
Research suggests that, after a tough winter, drug and alcohol use generally increases.
Michael reminded us that each year, of course, comes with its own set of challenges:
Some aspects of the arc of experience from 8th -12th grade:
8th-9th grade transition --- merely going across the hallway feels as though one is entering a whole new world --- a big adjustment to the greater independence and complexity of Upper School with the process of beginning to make defining choices in one’s course of study and co-curricular activities, which affect behavior, choice of friends, etc.
10th grade is the toughest year and, in a way, the most dangerous --- a year filled with angst as students begin to drive. In 9thand 10th grades, the use of alcohol and drugs is often linked with the image of the cool popular.
11th grade is often the most stressful because our culture and schools define it as the most important year of Upper School in relation to college placement.
12th grade --- The transition to college, leaving home, trying to imagine the unknown, and preparing oneself to enter the expansive world of college from the cocoon of AIS are pressures that generate huge stress.
You can help your daughters manage the tempo of this Era of Stress by:
Challenging them to define what is really important in their developing set of values.
Talking with them about devising a narrative before going to a party ---creating ways to feel and be safe; thinking about ways to leave if they are not comfortable for any reason.
Helping them see the wisdom in delaying exposure.
Naming the de-stressors that you find helpful.
Sharing some vulnerabilities with your daughters.
Developing a code word or phrase that your daughters can use to text you, if they find themselves in an unsafe situation and want to be rescued.
As we partner with you to support your daughters through these years, together we can provide a powerful antidote to this Era of Stress by ensuring, in our AIS culture of expectation and accomplishment, that kindness, inclusion, respect, and compassion become the true measures of our success --- clearly connecting us to one of the central values of our national organization. I would like to end my newsletter this week with one of the student voices from our session on Tuesday night because I think that she captured the fundamental elements of why AIS is such a special, empowering place.
Student: Popular at our school means leadership, kindness, approachability, confidence.
As we prepare for the prom next weekend, I hope that these thoughts might prompt some conversation at the dinner table. Wishing you a lovely weekend with your daughters.